A flu­ent study of mod­ern Irish writ­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - CLAIRE CON­NOLLY


De­scribed by the pub­lish­ers as “an en­gag­ing and per­sonal chron­i­cle”, The Wrong Coun­try is a col­lec­tion of es­says ex­plor­ing mod­ern Irish writ­ing from WB Yeats on­wards, al­ways with an eye to the del­i­cate re­la­tion­ship be­tween for­mal achieve­ments and their shap­ing con­texts.

The chap­ters con­sist of lit­er­ary es­says, writ­ten in a per­sonal, con­ver­sa­tional tone. At their best they are flu­ent and full of in­ter­est, of­fer­ing glimpses into Ger­ald Dawe’s ed­u­ca­tion and life while shar­ing with read­ers the ben­e­fit of his nu­anced lit­er­ary judg­ments. Even pass­ing ob­ser­va­tions on writ­ers such as Patrick Ka­vanagh, John McGa­h­ern and Ea­van Boland are worth our at­ten­tion, while his con­tri­bu­tion on the ev­er­green ques­tion of whether creative writ­ing can or should be taught in uni­ver­si­ties is wise and mea­sured.

In par­tic­u­lar, I ad­mired the bravura chap­ter, Basho, the River Moy and the Su­per­ser, on the work of Dorothy Molloy, Michelle O’Sul­li­van and Leon­tia Flynn. In some ways a cu­ri­ous group­ing, the chap­ter holds the three po­ets to­gether in fine balance as Dawe shows us how they can “bring into for­mal con­trol pow­er­fully imag­ined worlds”. He spends time with each of the writ­ers and draws us into a closely tex­tured en­counter with their work.

The es­says are oc­ca­sional in the strictest sense: the ac­knowl­edg­ments makes clear that the vast ma­jor­ity of them be­gan as in­vited lec­tures or con­tri­bu­tions. In­evitably, this gives the col­lec­tion a slightly ran­dom feel and there is no in­tro­duc­tion to guide read­ers to­wards a larger ar­gu­ment. At times the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can be con­fus­ing, as in the sud­den ap­pear­ance of a set of ref­er­ences to “dig­i­tal pro­jects” in the other­wise en­joy­able chap­ter From Dusty Blue­bells to Par­al­lax. The ac­knowl­edg­ments point us to­wards a con­nec­tion to the Ul­ster Po­etry Project at Ul­ster Univer­sity, but the book it­self of­fers no guid­ance in this re­spect nor any ad­dress for the web re­source men­tioned.

The book takes care to pay at­ten­tion to women’s voices, per­haps in­flu­enced by ear­lier crit­i­cism of the poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in Dawe’s edited Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Irish Po­ets. The Wrong Coun­try of­fers sub­stan­tial dis­cus­sions of women writ­ers in­clud­ing Ea­van Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuil­leanáin, while a chap­ter on the lines of con­nec­tion be­tween Bobby Sands and late 19th-cen­tury Belfast poet Ethna Car­bery shows how “the poet­ics of in­sur­rec­tionary vi­o­lence” travel across class, gen­der and gen­er­a­tion.

Chap­ters that deal with Irish writ­ing be­fore the 1960s, how­ever, are strangely inat­ten­tive to women’s role in Irish so­ci­ety, as if re­pro­duc­ing the so­cial val­ues of those decades. The chap­ter on the 1950s, From The Gin­ger Man to Kitty Sto­bling con­sid­ers those years as “the be­gin­ning of the end” for the Catholic Church in the Repub­lic and draws to­gether the “North­ern and South­ern dual nar­ra­tive” of change.

In the course of the chap­ter, Dawe du­ti­fully draws our at­ten­tion to the achieve­ments of Eliz­a­beth Bowen, Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien, but his real in­ter­est lies in dis­cus­sions of the lit­er­ary lives and in­ter­re­la­tion­ships of Bren­dan Be­han, JP Don­leavy and Patrick Ka­vanagh. To ad­dress such a broad topic via a nar­row se­lec­tion of writ­ers in­evitably gives the im­pres­sion of voices ex­cluded. And when the only real crit­i­cal in­ter­est shown is in work by men, then the ref­er­ences to women’s lives and predica­ments seem like ges­tures.

A con­sid­er­a­tion of the em­i­gra­tion of young Irish women to Bri­tain in the 1950s, for ex­am­ple, leads Dawe to com­ment “to what kind of life and lov­ing, one won­ders”. A pass­ing ref­er­ence to Edna O’Brien’s The Coun­try Girls (quoted from Ter­ence Brown’s Ire­land: A So­cial and Cul­tural His­tory) does not sug­gest any real en­gage­ment with an­swer­ing this ques­tion, nor does any re­cent crit­i­cal work on this topic fea­ture here (Clair Wills’s book Lovers and Strangers comes to mind).

It is dif­fi­cult to read a chap­ter like Fa­tal At­trac­tions: John Ber­ry­man in Dublin, per­haps the least as­sured es­say in the col­lec­tion, and not to won­der about other half of the story be­ing told. Women seem to have no place in the es­say, which touches on the boozy lit­er­ary Dublin of the 1960s and spec­u­lates on po­ten­tial par­al­lels be­tween the tragic writ­ing lives of Amer­i­can and Irish gen­er­a­tions of the 1940s and 1950s.

Him­self a poet and critic, Dawe writes from both in­side and out­side the univer­sity. He is also a North­erner whose long-time res­i­dence in the Repub­lic gives him a clear-eyed per­spec­tive on ques­tions of cul­tural in­clu­sion and ex­clu­sion. The lively clos­ing chap­ter on Oliver Gold­smith seems to recog­nise th­ese pat­terns and to find in the 18th cen­tury man of let­ters a model of the “out­sider-in­sider” whose creative style helps to pose im­por­tant crit­i­cal ques­tions.

The na­ture of Dawe’s queries of­ten re­main elu­sive, al­though the book’s open­ing epi­graph – an in­junc­tion from Hugo Hamil­ton’s The Speck­led Peo­ple not to be “afraid of say­ing the op­po­site” even when “ev­ery­body thinks you’re in the wrong coun­try, speak­ing the wrong lan­guage” – sug­gests a quiet form of com­bat.

Claire Con­nolly is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern English at Univer­sity Col­lege Cork and 2018-2019 Par­nell Fel­low in Irish Stud­ies at Mag­da­lene Col­lege, Univer­si­ty­ofCam­bridge


Ger­ald Dawe.

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